(This is a review of the entirety of season four of Arrested Development. If you’d rather discuss individual episodes in detail—and we know you would—Erik Adams and Noel Murray’s weekly reviews of two episodes per week will begin on Wednesday. This review is spoiler-free outside of one marked paragraph and the stray observations.)
How much you like the fourth season of Arrested Development will depend on just how quickly you can accept that it’s a show that looks a lot like Arrested Development and shares most important elements in common with that show but is also another series entirely, something more like Mitch Hurwitz and the cast of that earlier show got together to make a bunch of loosely intersecting short films about the characters from the earlier project, each with its own tone and point-of-view. It’s an occasionally hilarious, sometimes boring, always bloated boondoggle of a project, and it’s the sort of thing that’s at once staggering in its ambition and hard to approach with anything like real affection. It is, in places, masterful. It is also, in other places, at once weirdly pleased with itself and too ready to hold the audience’s hand where that hand needn’t be held. It’s also very oddly directed and edited, though some of that just might stem from the project’s inability to get the whole cast in one place at one time, due to the actors’ other commitments.
First, it’s important to acknowledge something up front. Though this fourth season is rough in places, it’s also unquestionably an important and ground-breaking piece of TV. When Hurwitz got the deal to make a new season of the show for Netflix, he could have very easily just churned out 10 episodes (the original order) of fan service, filled with callbacks and running gags and silliness. He could have simply made another 10 episodes of the old Arrested Development, whenever he could get the old gang back together for a weekend or so. That’s the way most TV reunions have worked in the past, be they in “series returning from the dead” or TV movie reunion form, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Those sorts of revivals provide the instant rush of seeing beloved characters back on screen, followed by the increasing sense that nothing will ever be the same again. Nostalgia’s a powerful drug, but it’s also a curse to a TV show trying to make a return.
For better or worse, Hurwitz and his creative team have taken the original series, broken it down for component parts, and turned it into an eight-hour behemoth of one story, spread across 15 episodes of variable quality. There are some that are close to the power of the show at its absolute height. There are some that are unquestionably the worst episodes the series has produced. The whole thing feels weird and kind of muddled, and it never gives itself a good reason to exist beyond, “There’s more Arrested Development! Yay!” But there’s still something intoxicating about the sheer audacity of what Hurwitz is trying here, and by the time the last third of the season makes certain puzzle pieces that aren’t immediately recognizable as puzzle pieces snap into place (like the sounds of certain shrieks in the penthouse and model home), there’s something very like the feeling of a narrative coming together, even if that’s not strictly what’s happening. The fourth season is trying something entirely new, so it’s necessarily going to have some issues figuring out just what that looks like. I suspect in a few years’ time, this will be pointed to as a kind of major milestone, something other creators used as a blueprint for their own experiments in telling stories via Internet streaming.
In and of itself, though, this fourth season has major issues. The foremost of those is bloat. The episodes now run about an average of 32 minutes, give or take, with the longest clocking in at 37 and the shortest running only 28. Compared to the old Fox episodes, most of which were in the vicinity of 22 minutes, there are places in every single episode—even the best episodes—where that bloat becomes all too obvious. Unfunny jokes stretch on and on, looking for a payoff that never comes. Story situations get dragged out long past the point where they would be interesting. Characters engage in strange circuitous dialogue that loops back around itself and heads off toward something else. And, yes, most of these things were present in the original series, but there, the tightness of the editing made them keep flying by. Some of what made the original series one of the funniest TV comedies ever made was simply its brazenness. It kept doing things that were intentionally daring and exciting, seemingly because it could, and for every risk it took, there was an incredible payoff toward the episode’s end. And when something didn’t work, the crackerjack editing allowed the show to simply blitz by it.
Now, however, that’s simply not possible. Making the shift to a series of individual stories about the nine regular characters of the series was inevitable once it became impossible to lock all nine actors into the same shooting schedule (and, reportedly, once Netflix couldn’t make that work budgetarily). And there are places where this works, particularly in the late-to-arrive Maeby episode, “Señoritis,” which not only fills in a bunch of narrative gaps in a way that doesn’t feel like filling in the last few clues in a crossword puzzle, but also tells an effective Maeby story about how the girl who was arguably the smartest Bluth allowed herself to get stuck in an endless cycle of disappointment. The original Arrested garnered most of its praise from its audacious storytelling devices, but it was just as good at telling a character-based tale or at finishing up an acidly black 20 minutes of comedy with a few moments of genuine feeling and heart (a marked contrast to the Seinfeld-influenced sitcoms of the ‘90s). Because of its structure as a 15-episode single episode—and as a puzzle box that only gradually reveals its secrets—this fourth season mostly sets that aside until the final stretch of episodes and even, in some cases, the very final shot of the season (the last “on the next Arrested Development” aside), which I found enormously affecting.
The season also has substantial structural problems. I’m endeavoring to keep this review spoiler-free, but I’ll let something slip that, I think, will benefit those viewing for the first time, so they don’t have particular expectations. (If you don’t want to read it, just skip the rest of this paragraph.) The season seems to be heading toward a moment when all of the storylines converge at the Cinco de Cuatro celebration that all of the characters attend for different reasons. Indeed, we see very little beyond the events of that May 4 party where the season begins. There are a couple of scenes set in its immediate aftermath and a handful on May 5, but that’s about it. By and large, the coalescing does not happen, outside of one scene (which, honestly, is ingeniously constructed to reveal a little more each time the series returns to it) set in the distant past. The season doesn’t build toward a moment of catharsis. When a character’s spotlight episodes are over, that character’s story is pretty much done, so we don’t find out what becomes of Lindsay or George, Sr., after their spotlight episodes are over around the season’s midpoint, making both halves of the season feel like functionally different shows about entirely different sets of characters. This means that rather than building toward a conclusion, the season builds toward a bunch of cliffhangers, which ultimately leave things feeling a bit flat.
That’s not the only structural oddity of the season, though. (Indeed, if it were the only one, it would be easy to write off as a simple miscalculation.) The biggest issue with the season’s structure stems from its time-hopping conceit. Put simply, jumping between past and present, while somewhat enjoyable on the level of trying to piece the season’s complicated chronological puzzle together, doesn’t work as a storytelling conceit. Indeed, for roughly the first half of the season, it’s not immediately clear what the story of the show is even supposed to be. Instead, a long series of mysteries stands in for what would normally be plot progression, and while there’s a certain satisfaction to seeing those puzzle pieces snap into place, the series’ master-narrative never once works. There are some legal storylines here, like Lucille’s trial (which the show keeps returning to again and again, to ultimately diminishing returns) or Michael trying to get his family to sign off on the rights for a movie of their story, but they don’t exist so much as stories or even McGuffins as they do very thin clotheslines to hang a long series of comedic sketches on.
This means all the timeline juggling ultimately detracts from telling a straightforward, interesting story, reminiscent of how How I Met Your Mother’s latter seasons have attempted to distract from the lack of momentum in the macronarrative by introducing more and more storytelling gimmicks. This has the uncanny effect of turning some of the earliest episodes into info-dumps, the Tiny Toon Adventures: What I Did On My Summer Vacation of unexpected sitcom resurrection seasons. It also means there’s lots more of Ron Howard’s narrator, telling viewers all the stuff we’re supposed to know, all the stuff we might have forgotten from the series’ original run, and, curiously, all the things we might have forgotten from episodes we just watched (presumably for when the show is sold into foreign syndication). The time-skipping allows Hurwitz and his writers to satirize the events of the years since the show went off the air, but this satire proves incredibly tame and easy, nothing as edgy as the original show’s skewed takes on the Bush administration. Indeed, the first political material with real teeth emerges in the penultimate Buster episode, which digs into a controversial program stepped up by the Obama administration in hilarious fashion.
By and large, then, the best episodes of this revival season are the ones that pick a timeline and mostly stick to it, either depicting the story of how the characters got from the moments at the end of “Development Arrested” to where they are at that Cuatro celebration, or explaining in detail some of the events of just the last six months. The Buster episode, for instance, is a strong example of the show watching as a character grows and changes (if those are really the verbs to be using here) in the wake of the Bluth family utterly falling apart. (It’s not a—cue background vocal—coincidence that Tony Hale’s schedule seemed to keep him the most separate from all of the other characters’ adventures, thus necessitating the largely standalone nature of his story.) Similarly, the second Michael episode (the series’ fourth) is the first to suggest a real sense of character stakes as it simply plays with how low Michael has fallen and just how much he longs to get back to a position of strength, but it also doesn’t bother with filling in where the character’s been in the years since the show went off the air. By contrast, the episodes that skip and dart between past and present—particularly each character’s first spotlight episode—tend to become structurally confused and simply don’t bother telling stories so much as lengthy “previously on” recaps.
In his capsule review of the season’s second episode, Myles McNutt puts his finger on just what makes this not work quite as well as it might. In the original series, Michael was the show’s center because he was the one person competent enough to manage his family as they continued to act as if they had all the money in the world, when they actually didn’t. (Meanwhile, George Michael and Maeby provided the silent stakes, the basically good and/or smart kids who could be corrupted by the family’s influence. Again, it’s not a coincidence that this season’s sense of stakes takes on far more prominence once the two young adults come closer to center stage.) The series was classical farce, yes, but it was built around a real sense of desperation, of people who were used to having everything finding it was slipping away from them. It was very much a story of its country and its time, and it depicted that world beautifully. By and large, the fourth season is missing those stakes entirely. There are some individual character stakes that work—particularly in each character’s second spotlight episode—but there are never any cohesive dramatic stakes for the project as a whole.
None of this is meant to be too down on what happens. There have been other complaints about the season—like the parade of guest stars—that seem rather misguided to me. (For one thing, many of those guest stars create surprisingly well-realized characters, though the overreliance on Liza Minnelli’s Lucille 2 seems to me a miscalculation, as she was never the funniest character to begin with.) And when it all comes down to it, there’s still a lot of funny stuff here, even if it’s surrounded by a lot of padding. There are gags here as inspired as anything from the original show, particularly when the show sets aside its narrative trickery and just lets these funny actors say funny dialogue, and even if the story never adds up to much or suggests a good reason for the season to exist, there’s enough pleasure in just having these actors playing these characters—for now—to make it all succeed, though sometimes just barely. But it’s still something I admire and respect more than like or even love. The old series made me laugh endlessly; this season was lucky to get a handful of chuckles from me per (very long) episode.
If the ability to enjoy this fourth season stems from realizing it’s fundamentally not Arrested Development on some level, then, the only reason it all works is because it’s another season of Arrested Development. Try to picture this series of episodes as being about characters you’d never met before, and much of what makes it effective falls away. By and large, Hurwitz and the cast are trading off our beloved associations with the original series in a way that mostly works. There are episodes here that unquestionably work, and the scope of the whole project is hard to deny for its ambition and audacity. If not everything works, well, at this point, Hurwitz is playing pioneer, and that means necessarily making mistakes that others (including himself) might learn from. This isn’t Arrested Development anymore, but it works because somewhere, deep inside, it retains the thematic resonance of the old show, perhaps best expressed in that final shot, contrasted with the first lines of dialogue of the whole show. Yeah, family is what really matters, but sometimes, the only way to advance as a person is to pop that family in the nose and make a break for a life better lived on one’s own.
Stray observations (with spoilers included):
- My favorite episode of the season was likely the aforementioned “Señoritis,” though I’d also give A-‘s to “Colony Collapse” and “Off The Hook.” My least favorite of the season was easily “Double Crossers,” which almost made me quit watching to go do something else for a while. (This should have been the perfect project for binging, but I frequently found myself having to make myself push forward because I needed to have this review filed today.) Where I most seem to differ with Internet consensus (at least as I can see it forming) is that I thought the Tobias episodes were just okay (though I did like Maria Bamford a lot).
- Of the many, many random celebrity cameos, I was probably most taken with all of the Andy Richters. For the more substantial guest star characters, I quite liked what Isla Fisher was up to as Rebel Alley, and I also enjoyed Tommy Tune’s one-off as Argyle Austero (though that may have had more to do with my general appreciation for the season’s deep roster of musical theatre references, including a pitch-perfect Company gag in the Buster episode).
- Hurwitz continues to be interested in trash reality TV, though he also offers up a ton of references to Modern Family for some reason. I do like that John Beard seems to host seemingly every other TV show in the Arrested universe, and I also appreciate how well Mark Cherry’s single, “Getaway,” sounds like it could fit on some version of the radio today.
- Another pop-culture reference I loved: the club “and,” owned by Jeremy Piven. (It makes sense once you see it.)
- Mae Whitman and Judy Greer were both part of the original series, so I wouldn’t really count them as guest stars like I might, say, John Slattery, but I thought they both added some new shades to Ann Veal and Kitty Sanchez, respectively.
- I’d say Jessica Walter acquitted herself best of the original cast, at least in terms of getting right back into the character she’d played those many years ago. There are whole episodes where lines are funny just because she’s saying them.
- One bit of the puzzle pieces coming together that I really liked was the constant motif of the Bluth family using the “For” field on checks to have some fun, which leads to Lindsay believing Maeby’s $50,000 residuals check is from Lucille to get plastic surgery.
- I found the “who will vote Michael out of the dorm room” gag to be one of the worst offenders for gags that go on and on and on, but I did find his later line at the airport about how he was mistakenly voted out of a four-person housing situation to be pretty funny, so I guess it’s an even split.
- Favorite line: Lucille telling Buster that his new bionic hand makes him look like he should be pointing at gold.
- Favorite sight gag: Tony Wonder’s brochure reading, “I’m here; I’m queer; now I’m over here!”
- If nothing else, I hope this all gets you to watch Route 66 to see the original George Maharis.
- I would eat at C.W. Swappigans.
- I found the appearance of Maria Thayer as Michael’s wife, Tracey, surprisingly poignant.
- Thoughts on Seth Rogen and Kristen Wiig as George and Lucille in the 1980s? I thought Wiig was so perfect in her impersonation that I enjoyed her very much. I was less certain about Rogen.
- With that, I turn things over to Erik and Noel, though you can use this review to discuss the show in full all season long. Here’s hoping for that movie or fifth season.